Books

The Importance of Being Seven – Alexander McCall Smith

This is the latest instalment in the 44 Scotland Street series.  Once again we are drawn into the lives of the people who live, or have lived at this address in the New Town of Edinburgh.

This edition sees us invited more into the lives of Matthew and Elspeth as well as Domenica and Angus.  We also get a brief visit with the narcissistic, but mostly reformed surveyor, Bruce; and as usual we visit the Pollock family and see life through the eyes of the very put-upon, nearly seven year old Bertie.

As with all of the books in the series we follow the main events in the characters’ lives, with Matthew and Elspeth it is the impending arrival of children and a move to the upmarket Moray Place.  With Domenica and Angus it is a trip to Italy.

And with Bertie and family it is the usual tragedy of a small boy with a domineering and ridiculously ambitious, and oblivious, mother.  In this volume we do have the satisfaction of watching Irene, Bertie’s mother, suffer some indignities.  Baby Ulysses develops a nasty vomit reaction to seeing his mother’s face.  And bizarrely, Irene is shut in a container of charitable goods being sent on their way to Romania.  And yet again we sit and hope that Stuart, Bertie’s father grows a backbone.

But Bertie’s ongoing plight aside, it is always a pleasure to read the gentle stories and some of the lovely passages like the ones I have marked up to share with you.

The first, discusses a series of pithy comments written in the margins of a newspaper sent to Big Lou by a relative in Arbroath.

These marginalia, penned in a crabbit hand, had an irrefutable profundity to them: so many people did indeed tell terrible lies, always had – and always will.  So many people, in all sorts of places, have it coming to them, and fuel the Schadenfreude of the rest of us, who are secretly relieved that it is they, rather than we, to whom what was coming came.

Angus later reflects on a commissioned painting that he is completing for a bank’s board, some of whom are no longer on the board following the financial fiascos of the past few years.

Angus thought about this.  There had been general calls for punishment and retribution, with eager tricoteuses taking up their station outside corporate headquarters, but this had left him feeling vaguely uncomfortable.  There had been greedy bankers, but almost everybody else had been greedy too.  Did those who rejoiced in the high returns on their savings stop to think that they were part of the problem, that they were rentiers?  Did those who ran up high credit card bills stop to think that they were part of the mountain of debt that the reckless economic party was building up?  Many first stones had been cast, he thought.

And finally a bit of musing on family,

Each one of us is a palimpsest on which our parents have written, and beneath their writing is the writing of their parents.  Thus is family pathology transmitted, and although behavioural geneticists may argue amongst themselves how genes determine behaviour, the rest of us have no difficulty in seeing familiar traits being passed on from parent to child to grandchild.

Yes, altogether a nice meander through Edinburgh and some philosophical musings to lighten our journey.

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